“The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holders lack of rational conviction.”
Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays
I have mine, you have yours, sometimes they are subjective, occasionally objective, they are formed by our life experiences and they shape who we are and how we are perceived. Opinions are heart felt and strongly defended. They can be positive but also negative. They are the essence of our engagement with photography. What we like and what we don’t, who we admire and who we despise or ignore.
An opinion is a view or judgement formed about something, but not one necessarily based on fact or knowledge, However, an opinion can also be understood as a statement of advice by an expert on a professional matter. Let’s think about opinions within photography.
I have previously spoken and written about the reality that within all areas of creative practice 2 + 2 does not necessarily make 4. It can make whatever you want it to make and therein lies the appeal of creativity. The possibility of ignoring, re-writing and breaking rules and forming personal opinions about what is right and wrong, good and bad.
This doesn’t mean that these personal opinions are wrong but it does mean that they have potential to be developed, expanded or changed by listening to opposing positions with respect and empathy. It would be a boring world if we all agreed with each other, but I do believe in the importance of experience, insight and knowledge when forming opinions. I also always attempt to achieve some form of objectivity when forming opinions. I don’t always succeed in this, but I do try.
“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”
Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian
I have read (as may you) many opinionated critiques and reviews of photographic work that are more about the writer than the work itself and read online a multitude of poorly informed dogma when it comes to every aspect of photography. It is the curse of ego within the reviewer and commentator, and a reason why I try to focus on specific writers and commentators who succeed in avoiding these potholes. I am always more interested in the artist explaining the why, when, where and how, than I am the person telling me what the artist intended, whilst exhibiting there depth of reading through extended tangental referencing or ignorance through aggressive statements.
Opinions are cheap and available to all, insight and experience are harder earned. And yet I often find that it is the opinionated within photography who shout the loudest, attack the hardest and are most easily offended.
Opinions can often be fragile and easily debunked, they are subjective and therefore deeply personal. When questioned they can undermine the very foundation of the person holding them. Perhaps this is why they are so passionately defended. A strong foundation of experience based facts is much are harder to shake.
When teaching I always explain that feedback on images will not be what you ‘want’ to hear but what you ‘need’ to hear. The two may come together but that is not a definite. Such feedback does not have to be agreed with just as opinions must not all be the same, but the experience and knowledge of the person providing the feedback should be considered before their comments are dismissed. As the Rolling Stones commented, “You can’t always get what you want, sometimes you get what you need.”
“All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
We can all learn from others and listening to opinions is important but not listening to and challenging misinformed dogma is just as important. There are many experts within the photographic community but there is also a culture of silos of practice. It is within silos that opinions can thrive and distort as they are bolstered by the opinions of others within an area of practice and understanding. Tribal positions are adopted and defended.
“If someone isn’t what others want them to be, the others become angry. Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”
Paulo Coelho The Alchemist
I recognise this within the photographic conversation that exists particularly online.
All of this is detrimental to the photographic conversation. Circular in nature such debate focuses on recurring themes and opinions which become increasingly entrenched. Meanwhile, the world moves on and photography evolves. Photography has never stood still, its technological developments have never allowed it too. New functionality offers new creative opportunities and new contexts in which photography can and does exist. This is good and yet with every change comes a further entrenchment of opinions from those clinging to the past or defending their team.
The moment the shutter is pressed an opinion is expressed. A decision is made as to what should be included, excluded and how the image will be seen, if at all. How successful that image is may well depend upon whether that opinion is based on fact or knowledge, or created by an expert. Talking about photography and sharing opinions on photographic matters requires the same level of engagement, in which listening is as important as speaking, and where opinions should be fluid and evolving.
“The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.”
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a podcaster, BBC Radio contributor, filmmaker, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).
His book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/
© Grant Scott 2021